The ‘Bun Reunion – Celebrating the 1970’s Roots of the Digital Age

If you are in any way connected to this story, see link to event invitation at end of this post.

In August 1972, just before the start of fall classes, a new arrival was causing a stir in the Math & Computer building at University of Waterloo – a brand new Honeywell 6050 mainframe size computer running GCOS (General Comprehensive Operating Supervisor) and TSS (TimeSharing System). The arrival of this computer (which quickly got nicknamed, “HoneyBun” and eventually “The ‘Bun”) set the stage for a whole new generation of computer innovators at University of Waterloo and was the foundation for many a computer and internet innovator.

In retrospect, it was a fortuitous time to be young and engaged in computing. A fluid group of enthusiast programmers, “The Hacks” (a variant of the term “Hackers” popularized by MIT, yet not to be confused with the later “Crackers” who were all about malicious security breaches), revelled in getting these expensive machines (yet by today’s standards underpowered)  to do super-human feats. The early 1970’s was the decade when software was coming into its own as a free-standing discipline, for the first time unbundled and unshackled from the underlying hardware. The phenemena of the timing of one’s birth affecting whole careers is eerily (the years are the same as my own) described by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2009 book Outliers.

The Honeywell had a whole culture of operators, SNUMBs, LLINKs, GMAP, MMEs, DRLs, Master Mode and not to mention that infamous pitcher of beer for anyone who could break its security. To do so was remarkably easy. For example, one day the system was down, as was commonplace in those days. As it happened the IBM 2741 terminals were loaded to print on the backs of a listing of the entire GCOS operating system. Without the ‘Bun to amuse us, we challenged each other to find at least one bug on a single page of this GCOS assembler listing. And, remarkably for a system reputed to be secure, each of us found at least one bug  that was serious enough to be a security hole. This is pretty troubling for a computer system targeted to mission critical, military applications, including running the World Wide Command and Control System (WWMCCS – ie. the nuclear early warning and decision mechanism).

Shortly after the arrival of the Honeywell, Steve Johnson came to the Math Faculty on sabbatical from Bell Labs. The prolific creator of many iconic UNIX tools such as Yacc, he is also famous for the quote: “Using TSO is like kicking a dead whale down the beach”. I suspect that few people realize his key role in introducing Bell Labs culture to University of Waterloo so early, including B Programming Language, getchar(), putchar(), the beginnings of the notion of software portability and, of course, yacc. It is hard to underestimate the influence on a whole generation at Waterloo of the Bell Labs culture – a refreshing switch from the IBM and Computing Centre hegemony of the time.

The adoption of the high level language B, in addition to the GMAP assembler, unleashed a tremendous amount of hacker creativity, including work in languages, early networking, very early email (1973), the notion of a command and utilities world (even pre-UNIX) and some very high level abstractions, including writing an Easter date calculator in the macros embedded inside the high level editor QED.

Ultimately, Steve’s strong influence led to University of Waterloo being among the first schools worldwide to get the religion that was (and is) UNIX. As recounted in my recent post remembering the late Dennis Ritchie, first CCNG was able to get a tape directly from Ken Thompson to run UNIX in an amazing 1973. That machine is pictured below. A few years later, several of us UNIX converts commandeered, with assistance from several professors, a relatively unused PDP-11/45 on the 6th floor of the Math building. This ultimately became Math/UNIX which provided an almost production system complement to the ‘Bun on the 3rd floor. And, even the subject of several journal papers, we built file transfer, printing and job submission networked applications to connect them.

Photo Courtesy Jan Gray

So, whether you were an instigator, quiet observer or just an interested party, we’d love you to join us to commemorate the decade of creativity unleashed by the arrival of the Honeywell 050 years ago. We’ve got a weekend of events planned from August 17-19, 2012, with a special gala celebratory dinner on the 18th. We hope you can join us and do share this with friends so that we don’t miss anyone. Check out the details here at:

And, do try to scrounge around in your memories for anecdotes, photos and other things to bring this important milestone to life. Long before Twitter handles, I was rjhoward, so do include your Honeywell userID if you can recall it.